“I think James Baldwin is akin to William Shakespeare when it comes to the belief that the strongest bond is the bonds of brotherhood”.
Award winning Broadway actor/writer/director Colman Domingo stars as Joseph Rivers in If Beale Street Could Talk. The Philadelphia native majored in journalism, soon after moving to San Francisco, California where from around 1995, he starting an acting career mostly on the stage. He has won many awards for writing and acting which include: Tony®, Lawrence Olivier, Drama Desk, Drama League and NAACP Award nominated, OBIE and Lucille Lortel Awards, making his British and Australian theatrical debuts writing his solo play A Boy and His Soul at the Tricycle Theater and Brisbane Powerhouse Theaters. Domingo starred in The London Evening Standard Award winning The Scottsboro Boys at the Young Vic and on and off Broadway. He is co-writer of the hit musical SUMMER: The Donna Summer Musical, he wrote the 2015 play Dot, and his most recent play is The Brothers. His screen credits include: Selma, Birth of A Nation, Tomorrowland/ Mission Force One (Disney Jr), The Knick (Cinemax), Horace and Pete (Hulu) , Lucifer (FOX).
Fast forward to 2018 Domingo joined the Director’s Guild of America directing Season 4 of Fear The Walking Dead. He was the first actor in The Walking Dead universe to direct an episode of the series. We caught up with Domingo at the Soho Hotel in London, he plays Joseph Rivers in the Oscars nominated new film by Barry Jenkins’s. If Beale Street Could Talk hits UK cinema’s from the 8th of February 2019. The film is nominated for three Academy Awards, including best supporting actress for Regina King.
AA: Colman congratulations on the film. How did you prepare for the role of Joseph Rivers?
CD: It was actually pretty simple. I think the first thing I did was read James Baldwin’s illustrious novel again because I read it probably when I was in my twenties and so it’s a great way to get back into the character. When I read it actually I read it focusing on Frank, that’s the role I was auditioning for. And then when I got the role of Joseph I had to get my mind wrapped around it as I was so deeply thinking about Frank. Thinking about Frank’s story and his relationship to his wife and and to his son Fonny (played by Stephan James). But then I had to go the other way and think about Joseph. And so I started to think about the blue collar men that I know so well, I say this truly they’re the reason why I do what I do. Like my father, my stepfather who used to sand hardwood floors. Both loving, very blue collar men who provided for their families. With simple wants, needs and dreams to send their kids to school and have a better life than he imagined for himself. My brother Rick, who is um, he’s a beautiful artist. But he works his day job as a garbage man. And so I had people to the left and right of me immediately, to just you know examine and examine who this guy is and how he lives in the world, how physical he is, how he is with the women in his life, how he is very much I think a feminist, how he’ brings a lot of the joy and love to the family. He is everything that Tish (Kiki Layne) is able to be or tries to strive toward because she has a family with so much love and that was a great intention with myself and Regina King. I think that yes so you understood her journey you understand why she believes in love the way she does because she.., she witnessed it and so I think that there’s beautiful moments that I think Barry captures so beautifully and lovingly in the film and that we don’t often see, you know the tenderness of …of this very strong man to his girls and to his “brother” played by Michael Beach you know his best friend. We don’t see these things in cinema enough. You know, so to see the black man have all this capacity and complexity and I wanted to give all of that I knew from these men that I love so well and dearly so it’s you know, that to me it’s an homage to them.
AA: So when you look at your character Joseph Rivers, what can you relate to as an African America man?
CD: (Laughter) All! All of it! You have to bring all of yourself into this, a special film where I felt that I didn’t have to go so far outside of myself to get to Joseph. I made decisions on you know, I loved the costumes, we did our work of the costume fitting that we were making sure that he was sort of very ordinary and and that his clothes carried over from day to day. I remember watching my dad. My dad would have his work clothes and I just always imagined that men have work clothes. And as a kid my dad had three outfits that were dirty. You know worn out things but that is what he wore when he went to work and when he came home he would change out of them. Then he had his.. my father was very fly actually, Saturday and Sunday he had his rings. He kept his finger nails long so he wore good suits and things like that. But Monday through Friday he was in his work clothes. So that’s the idea right now. He’s got his work clothes and he’s chill and he’s very comfortable with sort of laying back in his family and letting these three spirited women take over. So in my mind I thought Joseph was very much a feminist which is also me. You know he’s somebody who’s like he’s not challenged by strong women. So that’s why his wife can go off to Puerto Rico to handle business while he’s at home nurturing his daughter.
AA: When the novel was written in the 70’s by Baldwin it was described as a novel that humanized black men. Can you elaborate on that?
CD: Yeah I think… I think James Baldwin is akin to William Shakespeare when it comes to the belief that the strongest bond is the bonds of brotherhood. I think that you know Shakespeare always explored that whether it was in Two Gentlemen Of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, you name it. And I think James Baldwin is very conscious of that because he knows that he has to say that it’s such a deep love to shoulder your brother’s wounds and I think at times Joseph sort of, he leans into sort of loving Fonny’s dad and Fonny who is his best friends son in a way where his dad can’t do it. So I think that you know I think that James Baldwin is very interested in and also I’ll say and Barry Jenkins because what Barry does with Baldwin’s language and visuals as well he will hold a frame on Stephan James so long that it’s almost uncomfortable. He will hold on an eye, on his lips, on his nose and then stare into those beautiful brown eyes and you could not deny his humanity. You have to see yourself, he pushes the close up. He does this in a lot shots. So it really humanizes people he’s doing exactly what James Baldwin’s intentions were as well. Once you look at that beautiful brown face and see his soul you cannot just look at him as you know, some version of a black man that is limited to your experience, you know. So I think that’s exactly what Baldwin is interested in and Barry echoes that in such a loving graceful manner.
AA: So did you contribute to the plot points or did you just let Jenkins do what Jenkins does?
CD: You know, Barry as a director, there was nothing pushy or egotistical or brash about him. Nothing brash about him, He’s very calm and trusting and sort of quiet, with that spirit it makes you work harder. You are like, this person trusts me so I better do all my work. And I better be over prepared, beyond prepared and that’s the wing in the room. You know you’re ready to go, we all came in ready to play. There was no getting comfortable or used to anyone like Regina and I just fell into husband and wife, it was that easy from the moment we had the table read. The way that I would look at Kiki and I’d see her as my daughter and I would bring her head to my shoulder and she would embrace me. We just leaned into each other like we became a family effortlessly. Stephan James and I, we have a scene that actually is not in the film but we have so much love for each other and respect. We were in Selma together, I played Ralph Abernathy and he was James John Lewis and so I was able to look at him because we admire each other. I admire, you know we have some years apart but we I think we have a deep admiration for each other and a deep love for each other. And you know he is my little brother. So it was nice to know to have that familiarity with each other. And yeah I think it really resonates in the film.
AA: And did you find any of those scenes challenging?
CD: No. I’d like to say it was but when I tell you it wasn’t. That was it. Even the scene with both families in it, one of the blacker scenes in cinema. ( laughter) and all of our complexity, all of our humor, all of our grace, all of our fire is in one scene with all these different types of black folks in there. That scene I think for Barry possibly was challenging because like where do you put cameras with all these people? What do you do you get all the shots you need. I think I’m sure that we shot that scene over two days. How do we maintain that scene. I mean the level of complexity. But … but for the actors we were just open and available and we could have shot that scene over five days if needed to. We were like we know what we’re doing it, we know what the scene needs to be and we’re willing and open and Barry can give us any amount of direction to put cameras anyway and we were just there. So I didn’t have a lot of challenges to be honest I think I was working with people that I love. People like Michael Beach, we became best friends, I think there is something spiritual about the way Barry casts, he knows the energies I think he understands what will match together. I think of Barry as an Orchestrator he knows what to do with his violin and cello. He knows the kind of sound they’ll make together. So I think he’s actually conscious in that way.
If Beale Street Could Talk is an incredibly moving love story starring Colman Domingo, KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Teyonah Parris, Aunjanue Ellis, and Regina King. Running time is 1hr 59mins. Director Barry Jenkins. In selected UK cinemas from today 8th February then nationwide from 14th February 2018.